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Vardhan Kapoor on Sustainability Leadership

"We've only got one real shot at this."

· Podcast Transcripts

"The idea that "Oh, we'll think about sustainability later" is no longer something that can be kept on the table. If we're lucky, we'll be able to act soon, and might be able to stem some of this global damage, but it's not a question of, "Oh, we can pass it down to the next generation", because I think by that point it's too late. We've only got one real shot at this" - Vardhan Kapoor

Jeremy Au: Welcome to Brave Dynamics. This is your host, Jeremy Au.

Leadership is harder than it looks. As a proven founder and Harvard MBA, I interview courageous entrepreneurs, executives, and investors every week. I also share my frontline experiences, coaching insights and own professional development journey. If you are stepping up as a new leader, founding a startup or venturing into the great unknown, this is the podcast for you.

I’m happy to introduce Vardhan Kapoor. He is the Business Strategy Manager for Deliveroo, overseeing the development and deployment of the organization's strategy across Singapore. He also co-founded the company's Global Sustainability Committee. He is passionate about seeing the technology industry evolve in an increasingly sustainable manner.

[00:00:53] For those in the know, Deliveroo is a food technology company present in 13 countries across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. It was the Financial Times fastest-growing European company at 2017 and 2018 and is one of Europe's highest valued startups. Deliveroo in Singapore has over $45 million of revenue, 6,000 writers and 4,000 restaurant partners as of December 2018.

[00:01:20] He’s also a mentor at Big Idea Ventures, a hybrid venture fund that invests in and accelerates alternative protein companies. The fund has raised over $50 million and invested in over a dozen startups across New York and Singapore. He also advises startups in the sustainability and social impact space.

[00:01:40] Prior to Deliveroo, he worked in management consulting and Monitor Deloitte across the UK, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. He holds a Master of Science in Law and Accounting and is a Bachelor of Arts in Law and Anthropology from the London School of Economics. He is a World Economic Forum Global Shaper and International Institute of Communications Young Leader. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts in the UK. In his free time, he enjoys reading, writing, and cycling. Vardhan, you have truly been all around the world.

[00:02:16] Vardhan Kapoor: Hey, Jeremy. Great to be here. It's been a fun few years.

[00:02:20] Jeremy Au: Definitely. Everyone always asks, what has been your journey so far?

[00:02:27] Vardhan Kapoor: I'm born and raised in the Middle East, spent several years in the UK. After that, spent a couple of years on the consulting grind, moving from one place to another. I've been in Singapore for the last two years working with Deliveroo and the technology industry out here. It's been a whirlwind couple of years.

[00:02:42] Jeremy Au: Walk us through your career journey.

[00:02:45] Vardhan Kapoor: I started off properly at Monitor Deloitte, formerly the Monitor Group., I'd done a few internships in investment banking and tech prior to that. Much like yourself, I'd spent a few years in the consulting grind, living in and out of bags, hotel rooms, flights, all very appealing to a young 20-something. But as you get a little bit older, the edge definitely does come off.

[00:03:05] For me, it was that classic crossroads that a lot of young consultants and professionals feel. You're three to four years in, you've had a couple of promotions. Do you want to double down and go for that partner track or do you want to think about something that might be a little bit more attuned to your own personal interests?

[00:03:21] At the time, I was actually strongly thinking about business school and I spent a summer on the East Coast catching up with friends, tour at Harvard Business School, tour Wharton. A lot of them are saying, "Hey, Vardhan, you've got a strong profile. You seem like you'd be a good fit for growth stage tech companies. It seems quite well aligned with the sort of work you want to do, the sort of impact you want to get done. If there's a way for you to do out that without shelling out a quarter million bucks, that might be something to look into."

[00:03:44] So, I was thinking about the B-School grind, working on my GMAT, working on all those other things, and, at the same time, I was also making applications to some interesting tech companies that caught my eye, that had roles aligned with the sort of work I wanted to do.

[00:03:57] I was quite lucky to end up in a situation where I was able to choose to come over to Singapore and joined the great team at Deliveroo here.

[00:04:04] Jeremy Au: Sounds like you were at quite the crossroads in terms of choosing which region to go to and which company to go to. Could you share a little bit more about what was going through your mind at a time?

[00:04:17] Vardhan Kapoor: Yeah, definitely. I was looking for an opportunity at an organization that was at that critical juncture where there's scope enough for me as an individual to generate impact, but there's also enough resources and enough momentum within the org itself that I was able to not have to build things from the ground up from scratch. Even during my initial interviews with Deliveroo, it was in a really interesting position where there was malleability within the business for an individual to actually do a lot of work and have a lot of impact.

[00:04:47] That’s something that is quite critical and exciting about growth stage companies. The downside is the corporate culture changes so quickly. If you're doubling your headcount every 6 to 12 months as some of these companies do, it's really hard to retain that sort of core, initial culture. But sometimes, you can also be in a situation where, because there's so much growth and things are moving so quickly, things are adaptable, and you can, as an individual, impact things a lot through your presence.

[00:05:12] Jeremy Au: Amazing. You've shared about how leadership is really important in technology. Could you share a little bit more about what it means for our listeners?

[00:05:22] Vardhan Kapoor: Leadership, and more broadly management and hierarchy, in the tech industry are absolutely critical to its long-term and short-term growth. That's the bedrock of innovation. It's a term that's been thrown a lot these days, but to disrupt and to add value to the existing status quo.

[00:05:36] A lot of those ideas are going to be coming from people who may have more unorthodox backgrounds. They may not fit your traditional molds, they may be younger, they may have different industry experiences, they may have very different ways of looking at the world. It's by creating frameworks that allow those ideas to actually be listened to and potentially be actioned across an organization.

[00:05:58] That's when you can actually start looking at things differently and adding new types of value: leadership, management, building a framework that allows people to speak up, speak truth to power, to fail. To actually experiment with new ideas in an environment where that's valued is the cornerstone of tech.

[00:06:18] Jeremy Au: Yeah, that's amazing. How did you get started on your leadership journey in Deliveroo?

[00:06:25] Vardhan Kapoor: Deliveroo gave me a very warm introduction. The culture is embedded. This is something that the CEO himself did and continues to do this day was: all members of the management team have to do rider shifts. Within my first few weeks of actually moving to Singapore, of unpacking my bags, I was out on the streets, backpack full of burgers on my shoulders , heavy jacket on, going through the monsoon rains, trying to navigate my way up and down different apartment blocks, sweating the entire time.

[00:06:55] It's really easy to sit in an office and pour forth edicts " All right, this is what's happening to our team on the ground. This is what's going to happen to different individuals." But if you're not actually on the coalface, if you're not actually understanding how those changes trickle through down the system that you've built, you're always going to be one step disconnected.

[00:07:11] Understanding how the rider journey shifts, understanding the pain points that's felt by different stakeholders in the ecosystem, understanding the entirety of how your operations work is one of the things that is really critical. The insistence that management and senior leadership are actually on the frontlines, (and) are actually understanding not just the consumers but the writers, restaurants or the entire stakeholder ecosystem is one of the critical aspects of leadership

[00:07:38] If you don't understand everyone who you're interacting with, and if you don't have empathy for their point of view, you'll never be able to lead in a way that positively benefits everyone you're engaging with.

[00:07:50] Jeremy Au: Vardhan, you've been one of the few leaders who've really stood up for sustainability in all forms and fashion from a technology perspective in Southeast Asia. What brought you to this (sustainability) space?

[00:08:03] Vardhan Kapoor: Part of it is personal, part of it is professional. So, from a personal level, being born and raised, growing up in the Middle East, you're very much at the forefront of seeing how the world is changing. I remember summers, when I was growing up in Dubai, were getting longer and hotter and hotter. If I go back now, there's consistently days over 50 degrees Celsius, which was never the case when I was growing up. So, you actually do feel those changes in real time, and you see the desertification, you see wildlife, what limited wildlife there was, no longer being able to survive in those conditions.

[00:08:34] It’s not something I wish to see the rest of the world go through as well. No one wants desertification in Asia. No one wants desertification in India. But you're seeing it. You're seeing it happening every year that passes. You're seeing so many other issues.

[00:08:45] That’s something that I think very fortunate that we're in Singapore where you have a government that has a 20, 30, 40-year horizon. You need to have good public sector engagement. You need to have long-term strategic thinking.

[00:08:56] On the professional side of things, this ties into the root of why tech as well. Because it is so malleable, because it is so innovative, you have the opportunity to come up with solutions to problems that would otherwise be considered unsolvable.

[00:09:10] Look at the work that the team at Impossible Foods is doing. If it is successfully imbibed by a large percentage of the population, it will reduce not just CO2 emissions from the agricultural industry which account for over 15% of greenhouse gas emissions, but will also reduce water usage and antibiotic resistance for the industry, and also the healthcare impact of high cholesterol. When you are thinking systemically about all the problems that we're facing societally, tech does have some solutions.

[00:09:37] Obviously, sustainability has its place in the corporate pecking chain. There are certain things that you need to prioritize. There's no point being an ecologically sustainable business if you're not a financially sustainable business. I think that's a common mistake. You have companies and nonprofit organizations that are extraordinarily idealistic, and they have a legal life of 18 to 24 months because they're not able to survive in the long run. To quote from "The Streetcar Named Desire", they're just living off the "kindness of strangers". I don't think that's viable.

[00:10:07] I also do think that problems become more complex, and we're starting to see that with the wildfires in Australia, with increasing droughts, with the dust bowl effects we're starting to see in the Midwest in the US coming back, with hurricanes. We're seeing really high impact problems that are going to lead to catastrophic consequences.

[00:10:28] I think the idea that "Oh, you know, we'll think about that later" is no longer something that can be kept on the table. If we're lucky, we'll be able to act soon, and might be able to stem some of this, but it's not a question of, "Oh, we can pass it down to the next generation", because I think by that point it's too late. We've only got one real shot at this.

[00:10:48] Jeremy Au: It's so true. There's such a deep truth about how we all have responsibility to be good stewards for society and the planet. I'm glad that you're one of the leaders pushing this forward. You've been a strong advisor for multiple startups in the sustainability space and alternative proteins. What is something that you often end up sharing with them as an anecdote or as advice for them?

[00:11:17] Vardhan Kapoor: Sustainability alone isn't enough. You can't rely on goodwill as the cornerstone of what your business will be adding to the world. We've seen no shortage of companies with that operating philosophy come and go.

[00:11:32] Let's say you're producing an alternative foodstuff that has sustainability at the heart of what it does. You need to make sure that it's as tasty as everything else out there. You need to make sure it’s well-priced. You need to make sure it is a genuinely innovative product that is sustainable as well. But you can't just be relying on sustainability as the only thing that differentiates it.

[00:11:52] Similar ways around plastic waste reduction. Plastics waste reduction is naturally waste. There are economic efficiencies to be had by eradicating plastic waste. If you're throwing away sachets all the time, and you replace that with a reusable filling system that's conveniently structured in a way that benefits people, you're saving on the cost of the waste of those sachets being produced. So, there is an economic advantage that a well-structured company can take advantage of.

[00:12:15] But it's a matter of having a whole host of value to be added to the end-consumer, not just hoping that the fact that you are a sustainable brand alone will be enough to differentiate you and give you a long-term survivability. Because the brands that these entities are competing against are entrenched, sophisticated, have deep pools of capital and have very strong supply chains and access to economies of scale.

[00:12:45] So , you can always be a niche player and target the 0.1% of financially extremely well-off consumers, but then you're not really an impact-oriented brand because what you're doing isn't meaningfully changing the patterns of people in the world.

[00:12:59] Jeremy Au: What hurdles did you personally face and how did you overcome them?

[00:13:03] Vardhan Kapoor: This ties into some of the myths in the industry. There's an innate bias that if you're working in tech, you need to have a very technical background.

[00:13:10] To an extent that is true, everyone needs to be analytical, need to be logical, you need to have a certain comfort with numeracy. But I do also think that there is value in cognitive diversity. There is value in coming with a different toolkit, with a different set of perspectives, with a different understanding of how to potentially look at a problem set.

[00:13:32] To me, an organization whose entire team has one way of thinking from a leadership perspective will in the long run face challenges that they cannot easily scale up from. You will paint yourself in a corner if everyone who's on your leadership team thinks in the exact same manner. I don't think that's a controversial thing to say. I think it's just something that needs to be said.

[00:13:52] Coming from a non-STEM background myself, there's multiple scenarios where we're able to add different styles of value whether you're thinking about customer analytics, sustainability, having a more holistic worldview, having alternative perspectives. That has innate value.

[00:14:04] To all the listeners out there who might not have graduated from Berkeley with a computer science degree with 3.95 GPA. To all the listeners out there who might be coming in from a slightly less orthodox background. If you're confident in your ability and your drive, there's no shame in backing yourself and actually highlighting the fact that you can add new ways of thinking and different types of value to the organization.

[00:14:28] Jeremy Au: Those myths are so true. I still remember back in 2010, that was a very common myth where you had to be a computer science degree graduate in order to be in a technology industry, and I think that understanding is starting to change. What support or resources do you find are now available for others considering a similar journey?

[00:14:50] Vardhan Kapoor: The world has changed so much since I was at university. Back in the day, if you wanted to do something exciting with your career after graduating, you'd go to a consulting firm, an investment bank, a law firm, the public sector, and that would be the band of acceptable postgraduate entry level jobs.

[00:15:07] We're in a much richer landscape. We're in a world where companies that didn't even exist a few years ago are now offering internships and offering resources and tools and blogs for younger people out there to actually really engage with what they're doing from an earlier age. I think it's a fantastic thing.

[00:15:23] Personally, I think about this in two ways. There's a set of resources that you need to have in order just to stay on top of things. In terms of magazines or media publications, big fan of Bloomberg, FT, The Economist, The Information. These are just places where you tend to get pretty informed insights, especially if it's on topics that you might not be otherwise familiar with or maybe a part of the world that you don't have that rich an understanding of. That's your day-to-day staying on top of things.

[00:15:54] Equally important, if not more important I'd say, is the second set of resources. Ensuring that you're thinking about how to think and thinking about how to improve your own way of dealing with problems and your own approach to the challenges you'll face with the world. Read some Burton Russell, read some classic philosophers, engage with topics you'd otherwise not necessarily be engaged with, but which will increase your breadth of thinking.

[00:16:20]I think that's equally, if not more critical, than the day-to-day stuff because this impacts your ability to actually take on the problems that you face in your role and add value in a way that stands out from your peers.

[00:16:33] Jeremy Au: Awesome. My last question for you is: If you could go back in time 10 years, what advice would you give yourself?

[00:16:40] Vardhan Kapoor: Get used to failure early. It's an inevitable part. Growth can't happen without failure. When we start to face our first real setbacks, whether they're professional, whether they're educational, whether it's something like that, they can throw us off quite a bit. Taking a mindset that is looking at each failure as a learning opportunity and embracing that earlier on would have allowed me to engage with my own growth at a faster pace.

[00:17:04] Jeremy Au: Awesome. Thank you so much Vardhan. It's been a pleasure.

[00:17:08] Vardhan Kapoor: No worries. Great to be here.

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